SOC 101 Lecture Notes - Cultural Relativism, Culture Shock, Ethnocentrism
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Culture: collection of values, beliefs, behaviours and material objects shared by a group and
passed on from one generation to the next
Origins of Culture
Cannot determine where culture began: little material evidence survives from thousands and
thousands of years ago and much of culture is non material and cannot be preserved
Culture carries meaning and facilitates communication between members of society, way we
predict others are going to do, have a sense of our roles, the ways be have, ways we do things that
are different from other people
Facilitates or inhibits social bonds, social rifts
Everything that is the product of a human mind, the sum total of human creation
Comes from relationship of physical and social environment
o Is a social process influences all that people think and do
Hominid ancestors (human ancestors) began making tools and living in shelters more than 3
million years ago
Homo sapiens sapiens (modern human beings) emerged out of Africa and the near east roughly 1
million years ago.
5 defining features
Culture is learned. Immersed in cultural traditions as we grow, language, attitudes,
perceptions and values are all learned. Culture modifies and influences perceptions, values
and perspectives. Ex. What we define as suitable food reflects what culture deems
Culture is shared. Culture develops as people interact and share experiences and
meanings with each other. Shared collective symbols (flag, maple leaf, RCMP) help to create
and maintain group solidarity and cohesion
Culture is transmitted. Cultural beliefs and traditions must be passed from generations if
they are to survive. Communicating cultural traditions and beliefs is a requirement for any
Culture is cumulative. Each generation refines and modifies cultural beliefs and builds
on cultural foundation of ancestors.
Culture is human. Animals are considered to be social, not cultural. Animals
communicate but the reasons are defined by instinct.
**Note: debate exists on the issue of whether or not animals have the ability to
act according to cultural standards.
Culture can be divided into two major segments: material culture, includes tangible artefacts,
physical objects and items found in society; and non-material culture, which includes a society's
abstract and intangible components like values and norms.
Material culture helps us adapt and prosper in diverse and challenging physical
Non material culture:
Values: standards by which people define what is desirable or undesirable. Attitudes
about the way the world ought to be. Provide members of a society with general guidelines
on what their society deems to be important.
Norms: culturally defined rules that outline appropriate behaviour for a society's
members. Help people know how to act in a given situation. Ex. Canadian norm that it is
rude to talk with your mouth full.
Folkways: informal norms that do not inspire severe moral condemnation when
violated. Ex. Walking on the left side of a busy sidewalk
Mores: norms that carry a strong sense of social importance that inspire moral
condemnation when violated. Ex. Extramarital affairs
Laws: particular kind of norm that is formally defined and enacted in legislation.
Sanction: anything that rewards appropriate behaviours or penalizes inappropriate
Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism
Ethnocentrism: tendency to view one's own culture as superior to others
Restricts ability to appreciate cultural diversity
Cultural relativism: appreciating that all cultures have intrinsic worth and should be evaluated and
understood on their own terms.
Position that assumes no one should judge other people's customs and traditions before
trying to understand them
Culture shock: feeling of disorientation, alienation, depression and loneliness that subsides when
a person becomes acclimated to the new culture
Progression of culture shock:
Honeymoon: feeling of admiration and awe regarding new host culture and cordial
interactions with locals
Crisis: differences in values, signs and symbols begin to inspire feelings of confusion and
disorientation that lead to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, anger and despair.
Recovery: crisis is gradually resolved with growing understanding of the host culture and
recognition that its values are consistent with its view of the world
Adjustment: increasing ability to function effectively and enjoy the host culture despite
occasional feelings of anxiety or stress.
Language and Culture
All humans communicate through symbols: something that stands for or represents something
Language: is a shared symbol system of rules and meanings that governs the production and
interpretation of space.
o Language is a symbolic form of communication. No relationship between the letters c-h-a-i-r
and the object chair.
o Symbols must have established meanings or no one would understand the thoughts or
emotions they are trying to convey.
Agreed upon meanings shared by a group of people is what distinguishes one culture from the
When a language is lost, the culture to which it belonged loses one of its most important survival
Languages die when dominant language groups are adopted by young people whose parents
speak a traditional language
Approximately 7000 languages exist, and half of them are in danger of extinction in the next 100